At launch, Microsoft’s Xbox Adaptive Controller (XAC) was heralded by Time magazine as one of the best inventions of 2018. That might seem hyperbolic, but I’d venture to say it undersells the device’s impact. It provided the tech and business worlds with an example of accessibility done right, and in recent years, we’ve seen more and more games, operating systems, and devices embrace inclusive features.
The XAC’s most noteworthy feature is its modularity. The simple yet ingenious row of 3.5mm jacks along the back offer disabled gamers a wealth of options. Plug in an easy-to-grasp joystick, a larger button to smack, or a foot pedal to play games using your feet.
But it’s been three years since the Xbox Adaptive Controller made its debut. It’s time for Microsoft to lean into the inclusive, innovative spirit that made the original XAC a must-have accessory and wow us again with a second-gen XAC. Here’s what I’d like to see.
With an XAC 2, Microsoft needs to tinker with the software. The Xbox Accessories app is a brilliant addition to the controller, allowing players to remap controls onto any button.
But as Barrie Ellis from OneSwitch.org.uk points out: “Stick and trigger sensitivity [on the app] could be bettered (e.g. 25% - 300%). This could benefit a wide range of people, from those with weak muscles to those who would benefit from control strength being reined in (e.g. someone who would like to drive a car slowly, or finds camera movement too fast).”
Ellis also supports macros—or a combination of button presses consolidated into one button press—like the Ultimate Software for 8BitDo’s gamepad. Similarly, layering controls, like mapping RT and LT to a single switch, could be helpful in some circumstances for disabled gamers. And the option to turn buttons off to avoid accidental button presses could ensure a smoother, enjoyable experience.
Meanwhile, the app is limited to the PC and consoles; a mobile app would be a nice option.
The XAC includes Bluetooth support for wireless play, but most popular accessories—switches, buttons, joysticks—connect via a jumble of wires. Expanded Bluetooth support for add-ons from Microsoft, Logitech, and other third parties could appeal to both disabled and able-bodied gamers, who want accessories to work with their Bluetooth controller, no matter the system.
The downsides? Potential latency concerns for esports fans, plus “Bluetooth means that battery replacement or charging is required, which can be difficult for those with dexterity issues,” according to Warfighter Engaged, a volunteer charitable nonprofit that fashions adapted controllers for disabled gamers. This could be solved with a charging mat, but that costs money.
“My biggest issue with the controller is its overall price to effectively use it,” says Grant Stoner, a disabled gamer who writes for the website Can I Play That. “For example, the base controller is $100, without the extra peripherals. If you were to purchase the Logitech Adaptive Gaming Kit, that's approximately an extra $100, and this doesn't include any options for joysticks. At this point, disabled individuals are already spending approximately $250 for a device that isn't even complete."
“After purchasing one or more joystick, whether through the Microsoft Store or Warfighter Engaged, the completed Xbox Adaptive Controller could cost upwards of $350. That's incredibly expensive for a device with the tagline ‘So everyone can play,’” he adds.
For all the XAC’s deserved praise, this does seem to be a blatant contradiction. Stoner brings it all together: “Many disabled people are on fixed incomes, and after purchasing the controller, and maybe even a new console, that price skyrockets to almost $750-$1,000.”
If your first controller is a less jumbled XAC 2 that includes peripherals for a price that won’t break the bank, you might be more open to purchasing the rig you need.
Logistically speaking, Warfighter adds, “I would like to see the USB HID device expanded so more items can use the USB ports. Currently, only eight functions per side are supported. No triggers, no D-pad, only AB on one side, XY on the other,” he says. And “A dedicated ‘shift’ port would be nice so you don't have to sacrifice a potentially used port to get switch toggling.” Reasonable asks to see in a revision.
Another way Microsoft could enhance its accessibility jewel is by making the next generation more compact. Move the Profile button—which allows the user to switch between three button profiles made on the Xbox Accessories app—to the dead space in the middle of the disc-like buttons, and you could vertically align the Xbox, View, and Menu buttons above the D-pad.Twitter Adds Captions to Voice TweetsMaking Low-Cost, Stigma-Free Tech Solutions for Hearing Loss a RealityRobotic Brace Could Mean the End of Knee Replacement Surgery for Some
If the symmetric black buttons were a tad smaller in diameter (but still broad enough for an open-palm or clenched fist to swipe or bat), then the width of the XAC could be cut down from 11.5 inches to somewhere around 10.2.
Although Warfighter Engaged agrees on the smaller size, a 4-button overlay on top of the nostalgic 2 buttons would assume the gamer has the strength to lift their hand over a button. Regardless, this would make an XAC 2 lighter and more portable for users to slip in a bag or bring to a friend’s house.
This may seem unnecessary or like it’s overkill in a flat rhombus that is not gripped, but 7-inch, slab-like phones have haptics. Like the vibrations from alerts or notifications on phones, haptics could be a lifesaver for low vision gamers, but they should be optional on an XAC 2 because they can be terrible for those with motor skill issues.
The next thing that Microsoft should consider comes from the Nintendo DS and more recently Sony's DualSense controller: The ability to perform actions by blowing on the controller. Players could use an extension like a sip-puff to blow on the microphone and play a game. The Shout Box switch does some of this already, but it has no sensitivity and is a switch that is either on/off. The mic would be larger compared to the DualSense’s, and could be placed near the bottom between the two buttons of the XAC.
Out of necessity springs opportunity: here Microsoft could also support low-vision gamers by adding speakers along the edges of the controller similar to a laptop’s speakers. This would produce a surround sound quality and pick up minor noises that the hearing might miss but would be beneficial in navigating the forests of Ori or the vistas of Halo.
With these enhancements, an XAC 2 could be a real winner. But why should non-disabled gamers care about accessibility? Most of us are going to have some kind of disability at some point in our lives. It might be forever, it might be for a week. The disabled community believes that disability is the most transient community to be a part of because anybody can enter it as quickly as they leave it. We see it now with COVID-19.
Born in the late 80s, I started using the original NES around the age of seven. Odds are high that I, and many other gamers, will continue to play into old age, when something like arthritis or another ailment will prevent us from playing as vigorously as we do today. But if we make the hardware and software for video games more inclusive now, it will benefit all of us in the future.
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